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Pogacar riding to victory at COVID-defying Tour de France

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Tadej Pogacar of Slovenia, wearing the overall leader's yellow jersey, Richard Carapaz of Ecuador, runner-up to Pogacar as best climber wearing the dotted jersey, Spain's Enric Mas, runner-up to Pogacar for the best young rider wearing the white jersey, and Sam Bennett of Ireland, wearing the best sprinter's green jersey, and Most combative rider of the Tour de France, Marc Hirschi of Switzerland, left, take the start of the twenty-first and last stage of the Tour de France cycling race over 122 kilometers (75.8 miles), from Mantes-la-Jolie to Paris, France, Sunday, Sept. 20, 2020. (AP Photo/=332028000404=)
By JOHN LEICESTER AP Sports Writer

PARIS (AP) — Riding high on a performance for the ages, 21-year-old Tour de France rookie Tadej Pogacar was cruising into Paris with the race leader’s iconic yellow jersey Sunday, on his way to becoming the youngest post-war winner of the showpiece event that braved, and overcame, France’s worsening coronavirus epidemic.

On the 21st and final stage, a traditional procession where only riders not in the running for the podium hare off at the end for the prestige of the stage victory, the Tour was celebrating multiple victories.

First and foremost, for Pogacar, who left the race breathless by snatching away the overall lead from Slovenian countryman Primoz Roglic at the last possible opportunity, in a high-drama time trial on Saturday, the penultimate stage with the last real racing for the title and winner’s prize of 500,000 euros ($590,000).

The Tour was celebrating a victory, too Champs-Elysees over the coronavirus.

The race left the start town of Nice on the Mediterranean three weeks ago — delayed because of the epidemic from its usual spot in July — unsure that it would be able to negotiate unscathed to the finish on the tree-lined Champs-Elysees. The boulevard was unusually subdued ahead of the riders’ arrival this year, with the usually rows-deep crowds limited to a socially distanced maximum of 5,000 people, clumped in pens by police and barriers.

But none of the 176 riders who started, or the 146 finishers who were riding into Paris, tested positive in multiple batteries of tests, validating the bubble measures put in place by Tour organizers to shield them from infection. Roadside fans still cheered them on, mostly respecting riders’ pleas that they wear face masks, but were kept well away at stage starts and finishes.

As the Tour scaled all five of France’s mountain ranges and chewed through more than 3,400 kilometers (2,100 miles) of French roads, the only COVID-19 positives touched a handful of team employees and the race director, even as infection numbers soared across the country.

The director was back after a week of self-isolation and, in a mask, signaled the start of Sunday’s stage at Mantes-La-Jolie west of Paris with a wave of his flag through the sunroof of his car.

Mask-wearing spectators waiting for the rumble of the riders’ arrival on the handlebar-shaking cobbles of the Champs-Elysees said holding the Tour had lit up a dark year and demonstrated that the coronavirus need not bring all life to a grinding halt, if health measures are respected.

Pauline Bourbonnaud, a 22-year-old podiatry student, said it was nothing short of “an exploit, enormous” that the Tour succeeded in keeping riders virus-free. At previous Tours, she’d been roadside when they zoomed through her region in central France. But this year’s postponement to September, when she was back in Paris for her studies, allowed her to soak in the finish for the first time.

“It’s important to have events like this that are diverting. People needed the Tour after a year like this,” she said.

Largely deprived of racing as the epidemic tore across the globe, and with those in lockdown only able to keep fit on home trainers, riders arrived at the Tour somewhat race-rusty but with the pent-up energy of caged hounds, their disrupted seasons reconfigured to make them peak physically on cycling’s biggest stage.

After a slow-burn start, with multiple crashes, the racing became increasingly furious. Roglic, the winner of last year’s Spanish Vuelta and a pre-Tour favorite, was backed by a powerful Jumbo-Visma team of star riders devoted to putting him in yellow — achieved on Stage 9 — and then keeping the prized jersey until Paris.

But Pogacar hadn’t read their script.

He first demolished Roglic’s 57-second lead and then built his own Tour-securing margin of 59 seconds in the time trial, an incredible reversal of fortunes.

He wore the yellow jersey for just one stage — the last and most important one. The 30-year-old Roglic held it for 11 days, losing it at the worst possible time: when there were no more opportunities to get it back.

The birth of the Pogacar supernova is now set to ripple across the cycling galaxy for years to come. His future rivals are unlikely to repeat Jumbo-Visma’s mistake of allowing him to ride his way back into contention, as he did after losing time in crosswinds in the first week, when he slumped from third to 16th.

By conquering the Tour on his first attempt, on the eve of his 22nd birthday, Pogacar will join an elite club of rookie winners that includes, among others, the great Eddy Merckx, who ended up winning five. He’ll unseat Egan Bernal, who was 22 when he won last year, as the Tour’s youngest champion since World War II. And he’ll become the second-youngest winner ever of the 117-year-old race, behind only Henri Cornet, who was just shy of 20 when he was crowned in 1904.